What ambitious professional writer has not fantasized about seeing his or her name in huge, shining letters on-screen during a film’s credit sequence: Written by [insert your name here]?
Before that can happen, though, a writer must learn how to write a movie screenplay.
Screenwriting has long been considered a “glamour” position among wordsmiths. Since the early 20th century, when silent movies began to emerge as popular entertainment, writers have played an integral role in the creation of cogent, compelling stories.
If movies are dreams brought to life on cellulose and screen, someone must channel those fantasies in a practical way. After all, the actors need to know their lines.
The set designer needs to know what the setting should look like. The production crew needs to know where to point the camera. The editors need to know how to order the scenes to tell the story.
It is the responsibility of the screenwriter to know how to translate the vision of the story into the technical language of moviemaking.
This article serves as an introduction to that process. It explores the various elements of screenwriting, such as the importance of economy of dialogue, and the relationship between character development and context.
It also introduces the characteristics that distinguish screenwriting from other forms of writing, including the strict guidelines for structure and formatting.
Finally, the article examines how writing a screenplay can teach key lessons about the craft and business of writing, complete with tips on how to build a career as a screenwriter.
What Is a Screenplay?
According to Merriam-Webster, a screenplay is “the script and often shooting directions of a story prepared for motion-picture production.” The distinction often is made between a script, which is written for stage production, and a screenplay, which is written specifically for film production.
Screenplays can be used to tell original stories or to adapt existing stories for a feature film or TV show.
Today’s screenplays include story elements such as settings, character descriptions, descriptions of actions, dialogue, and specific instructions for production such as lighting, camera angles, scene transitions, and more.
When done right, a screenplay is simultaneously a set of instructions and a distinct work of art.
The History of Screenplays
When film began to be used for public storytelling in the late 19th century, screenplays were known as scenarios. These were loose outlines of stories, which typically were only one or two minutes long and — because the films did not have sound — included virtually no dialogue.
Although scripts written for the stage and scripts written for film shared many similarities, the lack of sound for films was an obvious key difference between the two genres.
Screenplays evolved in the early 20th century as filmmaking technology advanced and demand for movies increased. Communities across the United States responded to the early movie boom by opening theaters — more than 10,000 were in operation by 1910, according to an article published by The Script Lab, “The History of the Screenplay.”
Screenwriting remains a vital pillar of the $50 billion film industry — as well as a dreamer’s longshot avenue into the movie business. What often separates the dreamers from the professionals is insider knowledge of the essentials of how to write a screenplay.
Balancing Dialogue and Description
One of the most important technical features of a screenplay is the interplay the writer establishes between description and dialogue.
Description is used to establish a setting within a scene and to convey the actions of the characters. Dialogue is defined as speech or revealed thought (known as internal dialogue) and is used to:
- Establish character
- Build conflict and drama
- Provide subtext or misdirection
- Convey emotion
- Reveal motivation
- Advance the plot
A rule for dialogue is to avoid having characters simply “shoot the breeze” when they talk, according to an article published by Script Reader Pro, “Script Dialogue Should Be More Than ‘Just Talking.’”
Rather, dialogue should consist of words that are “hard to say or hard to hear.” In other words, dialogue should be used economically to put a character under some form of pressure or into conflict.
As important as it is to employ dialogue with a purpose, writer Lauren McGrail of Lights Film School emphasizes the need for a believable world in her article “4 Examples of Good Visual Writing in a Movie Script.” According to McGrail, “Dialogue must exist in a world so real that it has its own beating heart, capturing the reader.”
Screenplay Structures and Length
During the heyday of the Hollywood studio period, when cost-efficiency became the driving force in screenwriting, standardized structures and lengths were established to create efficiency and to dictate how much film would be needed to complete the shoot.
Even though the system has changed and most movies use digital recording as opposed to film, these standards remain in place today.
In general, a screenplay should be 90 to 120 pages. The number of pages corresponds to the length of the movie: A comedy (90 pages) is around 90 minutes. A drama (120 pages) is around two hours, or 120 minutes.
The 90- to 120-page length can take on myriad structures. The structure of a screenplay determines how the story’s plot is unveiled to the audience. Here are a few, as described in the Screencraft article “10 Screenplay Structures That Screenwriters Can Use”:
This is the classic “beginning, middle, end” flow. It begins with a setup, moves to a confrontation, and then reveals the resolution. This is the most common structure used by screenwriters.
The events of the story unfold in the order they occur, without scene breaks, time jumps, or flashbacks. This is also known as linear structure.
Multiple Timeline Structure
A number of related storylines are intertwined — but remain separate — as the “big picture” of the main story unfolds. This format may also be referred to as non-linear structure.
A narrator (sometimes with an unreliable point of view) is used to tell a portion of a story, while the rest of the narrative plays out on-screen. The “fabula” is the on-screen action; the “syuzhet” is the overlaid narration.
A Look at the Common Screenplay Format
Screenplays are written to fit a rigid format. This is because a screenplay is designed to be as clear as possible for fast reading. Details as granular as font type and page size are part of the screenwriting standards practiced by established professionals and savvy newcomers alike.
Using the standard format tells the reader that the screenwriter knows the industry and respects the reader’s time. Failing to use the standard format runs the risk of a busy reader dismissing a screenplay out of hand.
Components of a Formatted Screenplay
Most screenplays are written using Courier 12-point font and printed on 8 1/2-by-11-inch bright white three-hole-punched paper. The top and bottom margins are 1 inch. The left margin is 1 1/2 inches for nondialogue and 3.7 inches from the left for dialogue blocks.
The title page should include only the title of the work, followed by the words “Written by” and the author’s name. If necessary, contact information can be included at the bottom left or bottom right of the title page.
Here are the basic elements of a formatted screenplay, as listed in the Screencraft article “Elements of Screenplay Formatting”:
- Scene heading — a brief description that denotes the scene number, the setting as interior (INT) or exterior (EXT), the location, and whether it takes place during the DAY or at NIGHT
- Action — a detailed description of what the characters are doing in the scene; also might include instructions for the camera crew, sound crew, and other members of the production team
- Character name (dialogue) — the name of the character in all capital letters, centered on the page above the spoken dialogue
- Parentheticals (extensions) — words that describe the dialogue context in parentheses under the character’s name, often a description of the tone of voice or gestures used by the character for a line of dialogue
- Dialogue — words spoken by the character, printed as a block under the character’s name, and any parentheticals
- Transition — if needed, editorial direction for cutting from the current scene to the next (example: FADE OUT)
For clarity, the word MORE or the abbreviation CONT’D can be used at the bottom of a page to show that the scene continues on the next page. The word END can be used at the bottom of the final page.
- Script Reader Pro: How to Format Dialogue in a Screenplay
- Writer’s Digest Script: Why is Proper Script Writing Format Important?
- Screencraft: Elements of Screenplay Formatting
Using Screenplay Formatting Software
While a writer can format her or his own screenplay manually, the process also can be automated using screenplay formatting software such as Final Draft or Scrivener. Most of the established leaders in the software field require payment, but some also offer scaled-down free versions.
A screenplay formatting program might provide page templates for the title page, scene, description, dialogue, and more. For instance, the simplest function of a program such as Final Draft allows a writer to plug in the words and automatically save them in professional screenplay format. The more advanced programs provide writing prompts, character names, and backgrounds, serving as a digital writing coach.
- Indie Film Hustle: 5 Apps Better & Cheaper than Final Draft
- Studio Binder: 9 Best Screenwriting Software Tools to Use in 2020
- Careers In Film: Best Screenwriting Software 2020
Examples of Effective Screenplays
A good place to start an exploration of examples of effective screenplays is the historical list of Academy Award-winning screenplays. One of the most renowned films in American history — Citizen Kane — also happens to have one of the most riveting and artful screenplays in American letters.
It was written by Orson Welles, who also directed and starred in the 1941 biopic loosely based on the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Welles and fellow screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz won the Oscar in 1942 for Best Original Screenplay, and Citizen Kane was named the No. 1 American movie of all time by the American Film Institute in 2007.
One of the most influential adapted screenplays was the film version of the novel The Godfather, by author Mario Puzo and filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. Puzo and Coppola shared the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
What these famous examples of effective screenplays shared was their economic use of dialogue to establish character and conflict, their clear and direct descriptions, and their ability to draw a reader in early and maintain the narrative momentum on every page.
Visual Description in a Screenplay
The prologue for Citizen Kane stands on its own as a literary achievement. Here is a sample of the sparse yet vivid visual description that was used to create one of the most memorable movie openings in cinematic history: